This year, Simon Lai, businessman, and resident of southern China’s Guangdong province is expected to purchase more than half a million dollars worth of feminine hygiene products in Los Angeles and then ship them all the way from L. A to sell at a very profitable margin.
Simon Lai is one of many Chinese men who sell on Alibaba’s e-commerce site Taobao. His store is called Puff House and it specializes in personal care items. Just through June of last year to January, he sold $180,000 worth of imported tampons, making him the number one seller of Tampax products on the e-commerce platform.
The tampon market has grown very quickly
Lai is now filling a huge profitable void in the market. Although Chinese consumers have welcomed with open arms most of the western products, such as Starbucks coffee, deodorant, perfumes, and clothes, tampons are still a hard sell to a culture still bound in cultural traditions, where old wives’ tales are gospel.
Just $190 million worth of tampons were sold in China in 2013, according to the London-based market research company, Mintel. Despite being up 8.7% compared with the previous year, those sales equaled just 2.5% of the $7.6-billion sanitary pad market in China.
Despite Chinese manufacturers producing 85 billion sanitary napkins last year, none reported making a single tampon. The reasons for this are socially complex. With a lack of sex education and a culture where feminine hygiene is not readily spoken of at home, many women actually fear tampons will rob them of their hymen, thus deflowering their virginity before they have even had sex.
As well as these China attitudes towards periods have prevented hygiene products from reaching most women. China’s media regulator, meanwhile, banned advertisements of feminine hygiene products on TV at lunchtime and during prime-time shows, their reasoning for this was a question of taste, deeming that feminine hygiene was disgusting and thus would turn people away from the TV shown.
Chinese female customers are more sophisticated
Li, China’s first-ever sexologist, said that ideas are changing. Before 1989, only 15% of Chinese had had sex before marriage, but by 2013, that number had risen to 71%, she noted. This would seem a means of allowing young liberal women to act freely without fear of losing their precious virginity, and there are pockets of young females within China with changing attitudes. But, despite increasingly liberal attitudes toward sex on the mainland, the country still has a “virginity fetish.”
Yuan Rong, the product manager of Ladycare, says that China’s tampon market is so in its infancy that it is not worth producing any. Until the market increases, said Yuan Rong, there is simply no need to produce a supply.
Johnson & Johnson’s O.B. tampons first came to the shelves in China in 1993 and are still the only brand to date, to be sold in Chinese stores. Even so, they are usually only allocated to higher-end shops, such as personal health and beauty retailers Mannings, or foreign supermarkets like Wal-Mart.
Liu Li, a Mannings store clerk in Beijing, said there has been more interest. A year ago, she was selling about six boxes of tampons a month. Now it’s about six boxes per week. This is very little in terms of global markets but the change is there.
According to Lai, most of these women, however, are young women who have lived abroad, stating that most women are told by their mothers to use tampons after they have gotten married. Thus, the misguided idea that tampons can rob one of their supposed virginity still prevails in many people’s thoughts.
Chinese customers trust international brands in the feminine hygiene
Li Sipan, founder of Women Awakening Network, a feminist organization in Guangzhou explained that many clinics offer hymen repair surgery so that sexually active women can present themselves to their fiancés as virgins, noted. “I use whatever I want during menstruation. I don’t care if men think my hymen is intact or not,” said Wu Dengman, a 20-year-old junior at Anhui Normal University. “I don’t care how my behavior will be measured by those conservative women either.”
Wu was born and bred in Anhui province, and like many young Chinese women, grew up surrounded by ideas on sexual purity. The province’s most famous tourist sites include female chastity memorial arches built by local governments between the 14th and 20th centuries to honor widows who never remarried. Thus, to this day it is seen as an illustration of archaic attitudes towards sex, clearly admiring women who only ever had sex with one man. Wu then went on to say her high school biology textbook contained pictures of only male genitals, and she taught herself to use tampons at 16 by studying pictures online. She admitted that she never told her mother, which seems like a real issue in tampon usage in China.
However, it is not only cultural ideas changing that are raising the use of tampons. Safety concerns about Chinese-made sanitary pads are driving some Chinese women to tampons. Two years ago, reports surfaced that some Chinese-made pads might contain fluoresce — a cancer-causing agent. Thus Chinese consumers are turning to western trusted brands in the feminine hygiene department, with the bulk of them being tampons.
Sensing that China might be on the cusp of embracing tampons, French businessman Jeremy Rigaud launched a tampon brand called Wishu in Shanghai in 2012. Wishu buys tampons from manufacturers in France and Italy, labels them with Wishu’s logo, and sells them in China, through online platforms such as JD.com.
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